Analysis: Notre Dame's quest for 'greatness' upgrade starts with these 6 players

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

In Notre Dame football’s ongoing national billboard recruiting blitz, Brian Kelly resisted making his post-spring football mantra part of the massive signage campaign.

“The way that I see things right now is that we’re a good team. And good teams are not good enough. We want to be a great team.”

That’s way too long to fit on a keychain, coffee mug or collectible plate. But it fits well on an Irish team that is a little more than a week removed from wrapping up 15 spring practices and one that didn’t stumble upon any dead ends or unfixable problems during that process.

That’s not exactly the recipe for a top 10 preseason ranking, but that’s likely where Notre Dame will end up anyway.

College analyst Phil Steele annually predicts the Associated Press preseason top 10 roughly six months before it comes out. He’s 10-for-10 each of the past three years and a combined 115-of-120 over the last 12 in terms of getting the right 10 in some order.

He has the Irish at No. 7.

That would be the second-highest AP preseason ranking of the post-Holtz Era (1997-present), behind only Charlie Weis’ 2006 team that was picked No. 2.

In reality, this ND team has enough roster turnover — including nine NFL Draft picks and five others who could make a pro roster — to have a lower floor but similarly high ceiling to last year’s 10-2 team that made the playoff and finished No. 5 in the final AP poll.

That means the summer transformation needs to be much more dramatic and productive, though, than 2020’s.

“The standards are pretty high,” Kelly said in his 12th offseason as ND’s head coach. “We’ve been to the playoff two out of the last three years.

“So we’re looking at our football team, and it’s not good enough right now. And we know the things we need to work on if we’re going to put ourselves back in contention.”

What does that need to look like?

Here are the six key players to keep an eye on, whose offseason progress and development will offer strong hints as to how well Kelly’s good-to-great directive is working:

6. Jonathan Doerer, kicker

Doerer is both specific and symbolic of the strides that need to be made in special teams, though the Irish were top 25 nationally in net punting, punt coverage and kickoff coverage in 2020.

One of two super-seniors on the Irish roster, playing a fifth year due to the COVID exemption, Doerer was a compelling success story in 2019.

Jonathan Doerer kicks as Jay Bramblett holds during the Blue-Gold Game, May 1 at Notre Dame Stadium.

He shook off a shaky sophomore season in ‘18 and converted 17-of-20 field goals and 57-of-57 extra points as a junior in replacing all-time leading scorer Justin Yoon. His 108 points that season were the most in school history, and his field goals of 43, 45 and 52 yards in a 30-27 win at USC earned him the game ball.

He started 2020 10-of-12 in field goals, but hit just five of his last 11. Special teams coordinator Brian Polian said this spring that faulty mechanics eroded Doerer’s confidence, and his ebbing confidence in turn made the mechanical fixes more difficult to take hold during the slump.

Kickers played key roles in all of the past three national champs' title runs. Alabama’s Will Reichard made all 14 field goal attempts for the 2020 champs. LSU’s Cade York was 21-of-27, including 4-of-5 from 50-plus in 2019. He had a 40-yarder and a 45-yarder in a 46-41 win over Alabama that season.

Clemson was a mortal 12-of-17 in 2018, but Greg Huegel nailed two field goals in a 27-23 escape of Syracuse.

Polian said Doerer seemed to find himself again this past spring.

The Irish have some insurance in walk-on Harrison Leonard and incoming freshman Josh Bryan, the latter of whom might be helpful on kickoff coverage given that he was a starting linebacker as well on his Sierra Canyon High School team.

5. Blake Fisher, offensive tackle

The return of freshman eligibility in college football hits season No. 50 this fall. In the first 49 years of it, only one freshman has started a season opener on the offensive line for the Irish, Sam Young at right tackle in 2006.

On Sept. 5 at Florida State, it very well could be two — left tackle Fisher and left guard Rocco Spindler, though not necessarily at those specific positions.

Freshman Blake Fisher surged to the top of the Notre Dame depth chart at left tackle this spring.

Spring football was about identifying the best five linemen on the roster regardless of position. The summer time and early training camp will be figuring out the alignment that makes the most sense, consisting of some combination of Josh Lugg, Jarrett Patterson, Zeke Correll and the two prodigies.

Fisher’s and Spindler’s inclusion was hardly a default conclusion. Sophomore tackle Tosh Baker, for instance, has an NFL body (6-8, 300) and an NFL future and will likely move into the starting five next year when Lugg departs.

Patterson, the starting center for the past two seasons until suffering a foot injury in mid-November, was recruited as a left tackle and could end up there this fall. But the 6-5, 305-pound senior is rated as the fourth-best interior offensive lineman in the nation by Pro Football Focus among returning college players.

The best-case scenario is that the 6-6, 330-pound Fisher continues his accelerated learning curve to the point that he either keeps the left tackle job or makes it an excruciatingly difficult decision between him and Patterson.

4. Cam Hart, cornerback

Fully healthy for the first time since flipping from wide receiver two offseasons ago, Hart this spring gave Brian Kelly reason not to get too antsy about finding cornerback help in the transfer portal to pair with 2020 surprise starter Clarence Lewis (which still could happen).

A spring surge from sophomore Ramon Henderson, a fit at nickel for TaRiq Bracy and the prospect of dependable depth from one or more of the four freshmen has upgraded the expectations for a position group that had the most to prove this offseason.

The junior Hart (6-3, 207) gives the Irish unusual size at cornerback. This spring his confidence and aggressiveness started to sync up with that big body.

Junior Cam Hart (5) brings size and length to Notre Dame’s cornerback position group, but not a lot of experience.

If you’re looking for a possible surprise breakthrough player, Hart could very well be it. And if that happens, the Notre Dame secondary may flip from possible liability to probable asset.

3. Isaiah Foskey, defensive end

When pro scouts were watching tape of ND’s 2021 NFL Draft prospects, invariably they’d get distracted by safety Kyle Hamilton and defensive end Isaiah Foskey, both juniors in 2021.

Foskey was second on the team to fifth-round draft choice Ade Ogundeji in sacks (4.5) and QB hurries (5) in 2020, despite being a part-time player.

As a starter in 2021, those numbers could increase significantly for the 6-5, 257-pounder.

Junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey is being counted on to be one of Notre Dame’s top pass rushers in 2021.

The spring and summer is about becoming a complete defensive end, not just a pass-rush specialist. So if you hear Foskey drawing praise for his ability to defend against the run in training camp, this is the trajectory that not only will keep the scouts coming back to watch the tape, it will help give new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman the chance to field an elite defense in his first season at ND.

2. Jack Coan, quarterback

There was nothing in the 15 spring practices in which Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan took part that would dissuade Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees from believing Coan will be their No. 1 option at quarterback when the season starts.

The surprise may have been in how consistent sophomore No. 2 Drew Pyne played and how ahead of the curve freshman No. 3 Tyler Buchner ended up being by spring’s end.

Which explains why Kelly didn’t name a No. 1 coming out of spring and how intriguing the summer might turn out to be up and down the QB depth chart.

“I would expect (Coan) and Buchner to be the ones who gain the most ground on the situation between now and training camp,” assessed former ND standout QB and current college football analyst Brady Quinn on ND Insider’s Pod of Gold podcast.

It’s not just about who leads the offense in 2021. It’s about who leads it in 2022 and beyond, and how best to make those two storylines harmonize.

Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan (17) made strides in his first spring with Notre Dame, but Irish coach Brian Kelly declined to name a No. 1 QB following the conclusion of spring practice on May 1.

Getting Buchner game experience, even if it’s a niche role or mop-up duty, makes sense, but he has to overtake Pyne to earn that.

As far as Coan, the push from below should ultimately make him better, and that’s the best-case scenario for 2021.

“Once you get into training camp,” Quinn said, “where things pick up a little bit more than spring ball and you start scrimmaging and you start doing these live scenarios, Jack’s experience should be able to take over.

“Not only in that moment when plays break down and things aren’t right, but also the decision-making and really just handling the pressure. I think that’s something where the more you experience, the more you play, the better you are at handling it.”

1. Kevin Austin Jr., wide receiver

It’s hard to fathom that a player with six career catches for 108 yards in three years on the Notre Dame campus could be so pivotal as to whether Notre Dame ends up reloading or mildly rebuilding in 2021.

Until you watch him practice at 100 percent.

The return to 100 percent health should happen before the Irish open camp in August.

Wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. runs a drill during Notre Dame’s first and only practice of the spring of 2020. He missed all contact drills during this past spring's 15 practices due to injury.

A turbulent freshman year, followed by a sophomore-year suspension and a twice-broken foot as a junior in 2020 hasn’t diminished what the 6-2, 215-pound senior could do for an Irish offense that needed his explosiveness in the two games it lost last season.

They’ll need fellow seniors Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys III to be healthy and improved as well, and grad senior Avery Davis a formidable complement to Austin and sophomore tight end Michael Mayer.

For all the consternation over former five-star prospect Jordan Johnson’s decision to find a trap door out of Notre Dame, a healthy Kevin Austin Jr. — who’s grown from his turbulence, not succumbed to it — has a much brighter present and more promising future.

Notre Dame wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. in 2021 hopes to finally transcend a college career filled with setbacks.

“The way that I see things right now is that we’re a good team. And good teams are not good enough. We want to be a great team.”

Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly